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Review: When the Barbarians Arrive, by Alvin Pang

David Fedo, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013

The reputation of Alvin Pang as the premier young Singaporean poet, or at the very least a star in the small constellation of an exclusive group of this country's poets writing in English, is hard to challenge.

A literary entrepreneur, anthologiser and superb reader of his own work, Pang's poems over more than 15 years puts him ahead of or in such diverse company as Toh Hsien Min, Yong Shu Hoong, Cyril Wong and Felix Cheong - all superb writers. Although decidedly different in poetic temperament and output from Edwin Thumboo, clearly the éminence grise of Singapore verse, Pang seems to be the logical successor to assume Thumboo's mantle. He has sustained the high quality of his work since the 1997 publication of his remarkable first book, Testing the Silence (Ethos Books). Named Young Artist of the Year by Singapore's National Arts Council in 2005, Pang has just published two new collections outside Singapore: When the Barbarians Arrive (UK) and Other Things and Other Poems (Brutal, 2012, Croatia), the latter in a comprehensive dual-language (English-Croatian) format. Both volumes are on sale online, and each contains new work as well as poems from Testing the Silence, and from Pang's later collections, the well-received City of Rain (Ethos Books, 2003) and What Gives Us Our Names (Math Paper Press, 2011).

The poems in these two new books (a total of 26 in Barbarians and 49 in Other Things) are rich in subject and in treatment. His work can be difficult, and therefore hard to categorise. But what gives Pang's verse its freshness is its immediacy and intimacy, qualities increasingly found in the best of the less formal modern and more personal Singapore verse. Pang engages with life, with all of its burdens and uncertainties, as well as its poignancy and beauty.

One of Pang's most well-known poems - a favourite of mine - is Psalm of Birds and Birthdays (collected in Other Things and Other Poems), dedicated to the Filipino poet Marjorie Evasco, that begins in medias res as a tender domestic portrait:

You hold a small bird to your breast.
You who have mothered and know how it is
to nurse a second fluttering heart,
to let your body make space for another
as if it were the most natural thing...

The poet, watchful and approving, surmises that the hatchling nestled in his dedicatee's hand is momentarily free of fear, safe from the danger that inevitably imperils all living things:

This is Hope,
is the clear eye fixed beyond the narrow frame,
the fragile talon poised on no more firm foundation
than this flesh, the ruffled down sufficient and at trust.

Note that the poet doesn't tell us why or how the tiny bird has become cradled in his dedicatee's hand. It just is, and the peaceful scene becomes a kind of psalm of grace. But then the narrator describes an earlier experience he has had with another fallen nestling, although this time the young bird has died, with ants come already to claim it, and which the narrator sadly covers up with leaves. Pang then moves the poem abruptly to his daughter and goldfish, and ends it with these additional lines on the stark reality of death itself:

My daughter, 4, knows that goldfish
go to heaven when they go, but more to the point,
they don't come back. She leans on my arm, asks
me never to die, her small heart strong enough to love
and not tire. What do we do to earn our time on earth?

Psalm of Birds and Birthdays is typical of Pang's best work. A quiet scene of family serenity, lovingly portrayed, is broken by a disquieting turnaround. The final question - why do we live? - is left unanswered, although 'loving others' might be one simple and obvious guess.

Another moving but very different poem, Salt, published in both books, is a dramatic work about the unfortunate, doomed wife of Lot, who, as recounted in the familiar Genesis narrative, disobeyed the angels and looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, thus becoming a pillar of salt. The poem appears to be told by one of Lot's two daughters. Lot himself, in the Old Testament and in Pang's poem, was a mixed bag:

He was one of those who pushes on
at any cast, his eyes ever on the future.
Thinking of the next coin and bed,
a place to stow us for the night.
Not one to look back, that man.
Ready to offer his daughters
as a bribe for peace. His own little girls.

We are thus reminded that Lot, the nephew of the soon-to-be-great patriarch Abraham, was willing to 'give' his daughters to the rabble surrounding his house, and who later, drunk, slept with the two daughters who bore his children. Not exactly pleasant stuff.

Pang's take in his artfully crafted poem is that the unnamed wife looked back on the demolition of the two cities as a kind of self-sacrifice, turning wilfully, on purpose:

I would have been her breed of love:
to be the one left behind, clearing space
for nations to come. Or at least an ending
she could choose, a sudden white escape.

And Pang finishes the poem on a somber note:

None of us
will ever be clean again, she knew, the night
her back turned towards us as we climbed.

Here we have another intimate 'family' poem, but without a hint of the soft light and warmth of Psalm of Birds and Birthdays. Darkness rules, and not just from the spiralling cinders of the tumultuous conflagration.

Two of the most evocative poems in Barbarians, Initiation, an affectionate remembrance of the poet's father, and the Hemingway-esque Fly-Fishing, spin the subject of fishing into a brief on the relationship of man to the rules of nature. I admired in Initiation how the father becomes a kind of magician to his children, working a secret ritual with his hands and getting the hooks baited and ready to go. It's a touching but resolutely unsentimental poem. In Fly-Fishing, the poet's description of the fisherman laying out a line from / life to life becomes a kind of morse-code of motion; as usual, Pang's description is crisply apt.

The two title poems of the collections - Other Things and When the Barbarians Arrive - are prose poems, of which there are a number in each book. But here the form is, in some ways, problematic and even provocative: Are the paradoxes, contradictions, simplifications and ambiguities often embedded in the prose lines really more effective than they would be if they had been executed in traditional verse? For example, what do we make of the opening stanza (sentence?) of Other Things?

To buy a potted plant is to admit both faithlessness and need. To water the plant, perhaps daily, perhaps
once in a while when you remember and the leaves start to droop, is as close to love as it gets.

Are the key words - 'faithlessness', 'need' and 'love' - meaningfully linked, or not? In this case, I'm just not convinced.

Yet the second stanza - Other things mean other things - reminds me of Gertrude Stein's impatient dictum, A rose is a rose is a rose, and the American poet Archibald MacLeish's famous line, A poem should not mean / But be (from Ars Poetica). Here I believe that Pang is warning us fairly not to read too much beyond the literalness of the language. (So much for the mavens of deconstruction!)

The title poem of Barbarians (also included in Other Things) is a series of 17 apparent behavioural directives issued presumably by one surrendered citizen to his fellow captives; neither the barbarians nor the victims are identified. Grounded in irony and heavy in sarcasm, the directives - the commands by the unknown narrator - seem intended to deceive, confuse and perhaps even curry favour with the captors. As I wrote in my copy of the book on a first reading: But what is the point of the commands? To resist? To surrender? What?

The poem, unusually opaque for Pang, begins in rough prose declarations, not quite verses:

lay out the dead, but do not mourn them overmuch.
a mild sentimentality is proper, nostalgia will be expected on demand.
it is safer to consort with loss, to know the ground yet suggest no mysteries.
purport illiteracy.

And it ends bitterly:

dress your children like their long-dead elders. marry your daughters to them.
soon you will attend the same funerals.

So, what's going on here? Pang creates a mystery of clipped sentences, tense and ambiguous; nonetheless, there is a menacing quality to the poem which is hard to forget. Who is the conquered, and who are the 'barbarians'? Pang is unyielding; there are no clear answers.

Pang sets a number of his poems in familiar Singapore sites, including the somewhat funky Holland Village, often called by New Englanders the Harvard Square of the city-state, and even in upscale grocery chain Cold Storage. The deftly-written To Go to S'pore (reproduced in both books), with

the smell of raintrees after thunderstorm,
of angsana, of frangipani, still lingers
like fresh smoke...

creates an intriguing space of sights, smells, office towers and neighbourhoods. It's also a deeply personal poem, with an uncle having slaved himself blind / reading by candlelight, and a grandfather buying off a health inspector by bringing him a drink. The ending has a lovely authenticity:

S'pore tugged every which way.
S'pore clutched in the small palm of the sea,
becoming and flowing in like tears, tides, currents,
rivers run beneath the surface everywhere.

Then there is Pang's poem (Merlign, in Barbarians) on the famous Merlion, the towering sculpture of Singapore's lion-fish icon. The poet appears to be both admiring and sceptical:

Rough beast, you are neither idol nor ideal.
Your heard is hollow, cold, and open
for admission, but we have nowhere else
to hide our dreams. Take what names
we have to give, and hold our secrets well.
Keep what mates and what counts.
The rest you can spit as spray.

Pang's take on the Merlion is quite different from Thumboo's famous poem, but in its balance of playfulness (Even though there are more / websites on you than verses) with gravity (lost causes and years of waiting), the poem does present the Merlion as a worthy, if imperfect, symbol.

A closing note: In the afterword to Other Things, Croation editor and translator Silvestar Vrljic refers to Pang as certainly the most interesting young Singaporean poet, [and] by saying this, we are talking about a country with a very rich poetry culture. It's a generous compliment, both to Pang and to Singapore itself - a note of flattery which might even make some Singaporeans blush. But in my view, as an American observer of the Singapore scene, it has the ring of truth. Pang's two new books, now with international exposure, and the growing number of recent works turned out by other talented Singaporeans, provide a body of convincing evidence.